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You’ve Got This! Dyslexia Screening for Multilingual Learners

Northeast & Islands | February 01, 2024

A child reading a book

My friends and colleagues who are leaders and teachers in U.S. schools have found themselves navigating a variety of high-leverage needs in recent years, including pandemic response and recovery, workforce shortages, and the opportunities and challenges posed by artificial intelligence. One such challenge lives at the intersection of two compounding pressures:

  • States enacting literacy mandates focused on improving outcomes for students with or at risk for dyslexia
  • Rapid influx of students moving into communities as the result of climate crises, military conflict, or other recent traumas

I'm sure many educators and school leaders reading this blog are facing similar issues. Recently, we had the opportunity to support Massachusetts in revising their guidelines for identifying multilingual and bidialectal learners at risk for dyslexia (see chapter 9).1 This post highlights some key takeaways for understanding and leveraging students' language assets while screening for potential reading disability.

Literacy Legislation in the United States

Results from a recent scan of literacy-focused legislation across the nation reveal that over the past five years (2018–2022), 37 states and the District of Columbia enacted laws focused on improving literacy outcomes.2 This wave of lawmaking is largely due to a ground swell of advocacy by parents of children with dyslexia who have mobilized and petitioned state and federal legislators.3 Many of these parents needed to seek out independent screening and treatment for their children when their local schools failed to identify and address their children's reading difficulties. In response, many states have mandated screening of all students for potential reading disabilities—including dyslexia—as well as intervention when needed.

Districts' Evolving Needs in Support of Multilingual Learners

According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, there has been an increase in the number of English learners—that is, multilingual learners identified for supports under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—in U.S. public schools from 9.2 to 10.4 percent over the decade spanning 2010 to 2019.4 Over 15 percent of English learners are also identified as students with disabilities and are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).5 This population is not a single group with common needs, however. It includes students new to the United States, students adopted internationally, second-generation immigrants born in the United States, and students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE). This last group includes students whose lives have been uprooted by climate disaster, war, and other traumas that have forced their families to relocate. Many U.S. school districts find themselves facing an influx of new students with cultural and linguistic assets and instructional opportunities educators are sometimes not prepared to address.

Navigating Reading Disability and Multilingualism

The challenges faced by schools and educators when screening multilingual students for reading disability is summarized best in the opening of Massachusetts' new resource:

Dyslexia affects individuals in all cultures and languages and occurs at the same rate among multilingual learners as it does among monolingual students . . . However, because it can be difficult to determine whether multilingual learners' literacy needs are the result of ongoing language development or of a learning disability, multilingual learners may experience delayed, over-, or under-identification of disabilities (p. 69).6

To support timely and appropriate identification, here are some important considerations for screening multilingual students for dyslexia.

Build a Screening Process for Multilingual Learners
To address the complex relationship between natural language development and potential reading disability, schools should build a robust and expanded approach to gathering and interpreting data for dyslexia screening of multilingual learners. When reviewing your screening system with multilingual learners in mind, consider the following:

1. Select and Administer Appropriate Early Literacy Screening Assessments and Tools
Seek assessments that provide support for screening of multilingual learners. Consider the following questions before choosing an assessment:

  • Does it provide guidance on interpreting scores for multilingual learners?
  • Does it include multilingual learners in the norming process?
  • Does it offer some or all subtests in a language(s) other than English?
  • Does it use measures that are culturally and linguistically authentic rather than directly translated from English?
  • Does it provide guidance regarding when and how to present students with directions in their home language?

2. Use Bilingual or Native Language Assessment When Possible
Because dyslexia is not a language-specific disability, it can appear in both a students' native language and English. Bilingual and home language assessments support educators in identifying when a reading error may be the result of natural language development versus an underlying disability. For newcomers and our youngest learners, in addition to using native language assessments where available, consider assessments of phonological skills, rapid automatized naming, and working memory—constructs highly correlated with word reading skills.

Questions to Consider During Screening

  • What level of English proficiency has the student achieved in each of the four language domains (listening, speaking, reading, writing)?
  • Are reading difficulties present in both the native language and English?
  • Did the student experience delay in learning to talk?
  • Did the student experience limited or interrupted formal education?
  • Have educators provided structured reading instruction and interventions?
  • Have cognitive functions such as rapid automatized naming, phonological memory, and phonemic awareness been assessed, and what were the results of such assessments?

3. Gather and Use Data from Other Data Sources

Beyond screening and progress monitoring data, schools should gather and use information from other data sources. These may include:

  • Classroom observations
  • Interviews with students and families
  • Informational assessments
  • Home language surveys
  • Parent-teacher meetings
  • Student work or performance samples

Using these supplemental sources of information, educators should seek information about the following areas:

  • Family history of dyslexia
  • Students' language skills in reading both their native language and English
  • Students' exposure and experiences with both their native language and English
  • Students' educational history (see below for questions to consider)

Two Key Questions

There are two guiding questions to use when interpreting data for multilingual leaners:

1. Are the student's reading difficulties due to typical language development?
2. Is the student making progress when compared to multilingual learners with similar backgrounds?

To understand how people typically acquire language, schools and educators should consult language development specialists, speech language pathologists, and others with deeper knowledge and background in typical language development to support the interpretation of data.

Educators may also benefit from professional learning and resources on the similarities and differences between English and a student's native language to support proper interpretation of cross-linguistic transfer—that is, when someone uses their knowledge of one language to assist the learning of a second language. This includes capitalizing on positive transfer, such as letters and sounds with similar pronunciations, and understanding interference caused by linguistic knowledge from one language being misapplied to another.

By using intentional and robust screening systems that go beyond the data available through universal measures, educators can successfully identify multilingual learners at risk for dyslexia and provide appropriate instruction and intervention.

To Learn More

For a deeper look into these and additional concepts, I encourage you to read the revised "Chapter 9: Considerations for multilingual and bidialectal learners at risk for dyslexia," published in the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines (pp. 69 – 87).  Additionally, you may watch a webinar REL Northeast & Islands hosted on dyslexia screening for multilingual and bidialectal learners, which features a multi-agency panel of experts.


1. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2023). Chapter 9: Considerations for multilingual and bidialectal learners at risk for dyslexia. In Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines (pp. 69–87).

2. Stai, C. (2023). Region 1 literacy scan, 2019–2022. Region 1 Comprehensive Center.

3. Luscombe, B. (2019). How parents of dyslexic kids took to their statehouses and won. Time.

4. National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). English Learners in Public Schools. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

5. Ibid.

6. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2023). Chapter 9: Considerations for multilingual and bidialectal learners at risk for dyslexia. In Massachusetts Dyslexia uidelines (pp. 69–87).


Cory Stai

Cory Stai

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